29 Jul 2018

United Skates: Documentary highlights hip hop’s link to roller skating

From Sunday Morning, 9:40 am on 29 July 2018

Skate rinks were breeding grounds for new hip-hop and dance talent in the 1980s – but who roller skates these days?

The new documentary United Skates reveals an African American skate subculture still vibrant in the face of police racism and closing rinks.

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Photo: United Skates

Tina Brown

Tina Brown Photo: RNZ

Filmmaker Tina Brown tells Wallace Chapman that she and co-director Dyana Winkler got the idea for the documentary after watching a group of old-school skaters in New York.

"We started filming some skaters in Central Park – an eccentric, disco-era bunch of skaters. We thought when they stopped [doing it] that would be it for roller skaters. Who roller skates anymore? It's all birthday parties or retro throwbacks."

They then met a young man who told them that, far from being dead, roller skating was flourishing.

He invited them to a skate party in Richmond, Virginia and they jumped on a bus to go check it out.

Brown says they couldn't believe what they saw there.

"They skate from midnight to six am. We saw thousands of skaters doing the craziest moves."

The pair soon became enmeshed in the skating community and filmed at rinks around the country.

In United Skates, legendary '90s hip-hop trio Salt-N-Pepa say that in their time roller skating was inseparable from hip-hop.

The link between the two cultures runs deep, says Brown.

"Rinks were hubs for the African American community, they were part of their culture. Everybody would go skating.

"We had an interview with Salt-N-Pepa [who] bonded over their love of roller skating and dance."

Hip-hop trio Salt-N-Pepa – Cheryl James ("Salt"), Sandra Denton ("Pepa") and Deidra Roper ("DJ Spinderella")

Hip-hop trio Salt-N-Pepa – Cheryl James ("Salt"), Sandra Denton ("Pepa") and Deidra Roper ("DJ Spinderella") Photo: Salt-N-Pepa / Facebook

Skate rinks were perfect performance venues for emerging hip-hop artists, Brown says.

"We spoke to the Cornell University Hip Hop Collection and they had some great footage of [New York hip-hop group] Funky 4 + 1 performing in a roller rink.

"It has a very strong influence on hip-hop in that the roller rinks were one of the only large venues that would allow them to perform … If it wasn't for the rinks maybe we wouldn't have hip-hop as it is today."

Hip-hop mogul Dr Dre (a founder member of the seminal and controversial hip-hop group NWA) started out as a skate DJ, Brown says.

"In [the 2015 biographical film] Straight Outta Compton, there's a scene very early on where NWA perform in a roller rink."

Skateland, a legendary roller rink in Compton which helped launch hip-hop band NWA in the 1980s.

Skateland, a legendary roller rink in Compton which helped launch hip-hop band NWA in the 1980s. Photo: Courtesy of Craig Schweisinger

In African American communities rinks were "hard-fought spaces", she says.

"These really were life-saving spaces. Parents could leave kids and rink managers would look after them. They were protected from being shot at because they were inside, they weren't on the streets. And from there they built up a sense of community so they ended up not joining gangs.

"Those that did join gangs, that had a love of skating, left their colours at the door when they went skating."

But now many rinks are closing as councils in the US change zoning laws, she says.

"They are closing down three a month. Councils are changing the zoning to push them out. Especially in the African American communities, the rinks are rezoned from recreational to commercial and it's really hard to change that back."

When black skate nights do happen they are accompanied by an undercurrent of racism, she says.

"People would say 'Come to Philly on Thursday, that's our night' and that's when we realised segregation was going on in the rink."

There is an increased police presence on African American skate nights, Brown says.

She and Winkler were often stopped by police and asked what they were doing.

"They would say 'It's not safe here, you need to go, you shouldn't be here, it's not a good neighbourhood'."

The rinks that survive are a place for freedom of expression, Brown says.

"One man, Batman, he becomes the superhero on skates. When he enters the rink he becomes somebody. During the day he's a security guard at a high school, but once he steps onto those eight wheels he becomes Batman."

United Skates is showing as part of the NZ International Film Festival.

A still from the documentary United Skates.

​​ A still from the documentary United Skates. Photo: United Skates / Facebook